Council Majority Fears Illegal Transfers | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Council Majority Fears Illegal Transfers

A majority of the City Council held a press conference today explaining their recent votes of no confidence in City Attorney Sarah O'Reilly-Evans and to withhold pay from two city employees.

Council members Margaret Barrett-Simon, Leslie McLemore, Marshand Crisler and Council President Ben Allen said they voted to withhold payments to Charles Melvin and Todd Chandler because they fear those payments could be illegal.

Last month, the council voted down Todd Chandler as fire chief, 20 months after Mayor Frank Melton named him interim fire chief. The council also rejected Charles Melvin as director of the Department of Parks and Recreation. Melvin served under Melton at the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, and he supervised the mayor's youth initiative, including the Wood Street lawn crew.

After City Council rejected Chandler, Melton installed him as assistant fire chief and granted him authority over the fire department. After the council rejected Melvin, Melton made him an assistant chief administration officer in charge of parks and recreation.

Allen explained that the four members voted to hold the paychecks on advice from their
attorneys, who had advised them that the payments might be illegal.

"(Our attorneys) are afraid that we, as approvers of the claims docket, may be getting into something that may not be easy to explain our way out of, even if it's done completely in ignorance," Allen said at a press conference addressing the line-item pay freeze.

Allen quoted from state statute 21-39-9, which states that spending city funds not authorized by "an order entered upon the (council) minutes" is a misdemeanor, punishable by $500 and jail time or both. Government officials who violate the law can be "immediately and automatically ... removed from office" upon conviction.

Crisler, a member of law enforcement, said good intentions are not a defense in court.
"I've heard this notion several times, 'Well, I didn't know, and I made a mistake.' Let me tell you something: This is the state of Mississippi, and it doesn't understand anything about 'I didn't know.' Ignorance of the law is not an excuse. There's a lot of people sitting in jail right now because they were ignorant," Crisler said.

The council majority expressed concern that Melvin's salary, for instance, might be pulled from parks and recreation, though he now serves in another department.

"We don't know for sure if they've (illegally transferred money)," Crisler said. "We don't know, and that's the concern. If they reached over into parks and recreation, took (Melvin's) salary and put it over in the CAO's office, then that's illegal, because it didn't come before us. We need to make a public statmeent that we're not in support of what's going on, because somebody's going to start asking questions real soon, and we need to be on record saying we had concerns."

Crisler went on to clarify that City Council does not yet know whether such transfers have taken place, but Barrett-Simon said that with budget revisions so many months overdue, there was no way to know how funds might have been moved.

"I shudder to think what might happen if (State Auditor) Phil Bryant walked in here today," Barrett-Simon said. "I shudder to think what might happen."

McLemore said that it is unprecedented to be so late into the fiscal year without budget revisions. The administration has already admitted that its expenditures will exceed the budget City Council authorized by $3.9 million.

"I've been on the council since 1999, and we've never been this late in the fiscal year where we have not had at least one budget revision. ... They keep putting us off. The last conversation we had about the budget was that skeletal outline on expenditures, and that was it," McLemore said, referring to a three-page administration document outlining hundreds of thousands of dollars in cuts to departments in one or two sentences.

Allen said that even if illegal budget transfers have not occurred, state law was clear that all departments must be directed by directors, interim directors or deputy directors. He urged Melton to comply with state law.

"The solution is very simple," Allen said. "Have either a director, an interim director or a deputy director sign off on every issue or order that comes through the department. That's not our opinion. That's the law. There no law that our attorneys can find that allows a CAO to sign off on every issue that happens within the department," Allen said, adding that the council would "start paying (Melvin and Chandler) next week" if the mayor would "just be forthcoming with straightforward solutions as provided for by law."

The council majority also explained why they voted for a resolution expressing no confidence in O'Reilly-Evans.

"We were getting advice from our attorneys that we should not approve the payroll docket because it may not be legal, but we were getting advice from the city's legal department pooh-poohing that," Allen said, explaining that O'Reilly-Evans was giving legal advice to the council that plainly contradicted state law. "I was told that I could vote on the school board issue, and I certainly can not vote on the school board issue. The school board votes on my contracts, and I'm told that I can vote on a school board issue, subject to a lawsuit?"

Allen recused himself from a council vote on the nomination of a JPS board nominee who could prove to be a crucial swing vote in awarding management of a $150 million bond. Last month, City Council members and JPS employees accused Melton's Chief of Staff Marcus Ward of threatening to pull School Board Vice President Jonathan Larkin's name for re-nomination if Larkin did not vote for Melton's preferred contractor. Larkin voted for a competing company, and Melton pulled his nomination. Ward denies the allegation.

Barrett-Simon accused O'Reilly-Evans of serving Melton rather than the city, as her position demands.

"My fears were confirmed this past week when the city attorney said, 'I work at the will and pleasure of the (mayor).' As a council member, my question is: Why is there a confirmation process that involves the council ... if she serves only at the will and pleasure of the mayor?" Barrett-Simon asked.

During questions from the press, Barrett-Simon and McLemore said they stood by their call for the mayor's resignation. Barrett-Simon called for "an end to the chaos, and to get on to city business."

Allen said the breakdown in city government could not continue. "Communication and respect is a two-way street. That's all we want: honest communication," Allen said.

Carolyn Redd, who is Melton's sister-in-law and one of four assistant CAOs making between $70,000 and $80,000 annually, asked Allen why the council could not address their concerns to Melton in private. Redd, who explained later that her duties as an assistant CAO included "marketing and public relations," does not report for any publication, and she was the only person to ask questions who was not a member of the press.

Allen explained that after months of discussion with Melton, he no longer felt that the mayor could be taken at his word.

"The day before (Melton) fired (former Parks and Recreation Director) Ramie Ford, he assured me Ramie was going to be re-hired," Allen said. "He assured me on four separate occasions that he would address the Todd Chandler situation, that he would see there was a placement made as long as that was the will of the council, and he refuses to have the hearing. … I had (Melton) on the radio the other day, and he told me on the radio that he was going to bring Larkin up for school board re-appointment. Meanwhile, the day before, he sent a memo saying he wanted (Larkin) to be pulled. So which part (of the mayor's private conversations) do I believe, and which part do I not believe?

Redd asked Allen if he had never said anything that turned out to be false, but Allen dismissed the question with a wave of his hand.

McLemore said that Melton seemed not to understand that there are legal and constitutional limits to his power.

"The city of Jackson did not elect a king. We didn't elect a czar. We didn't elect a pope. We elected a mayor and seven members of the city council, and it's a two way street. Right now, we're not witnessing the separation of powers, and we're not witnessing cooperation, because the mayor has decided that I'm going to do it my way or no way," McLemore said.

Previous Comments

ID
92731
Comment

i totally understand their frustrations (yes, i know; this is contrary to my devil's advocate rants of days prior). if the mayor would only think of OTHERS instead of merely himself, the City of Jackson could be a much better place to work, shop, and live. just as Dr. McLemore stated, the city is not one's own little kingdom. but i offer a constructive suggestion to the council members: they apparently have their own attorneys, since they have been referred to a number of times. if the claims and payroll dockets are much a major concern - as they should be - then why don't the private attorneys review the dockets for the council prior to them voting on them? if their confidence in the city attorney has wained, then they ought to seek the advice of outside counsel which could be more objective (or subjective) in the council's favor.

Author
cityofjacksonms
Date
2007-05-24T21:54:48-06:00
ID
92732
Comment

Frank may be worth millions, but this city doesn't have millions to pay for his shenanigans. Maybe the blind loyalists will finally take off the blinders and see what they're being taken for.

Author
golden eagle
Date
2007-05-24T22:00:52-06:00
ID
92733
Comment

It's getting hot in here... Redd asked Allen if he had never said anything that turned out to be false, but Allen dismissed the question with a wave of his hand. Typical deflection. I'm glad the councilman didn't indulge.

Author
LatashaWillis
Date
2007-05-24T22:17:57-06:00
ID
92734
Comment

city... I agree in theory with your point that the attorneys should review the minutes for the council. There are some legal and ethical issues that do arise. Noted these are mainly legal ethical issues 1.Who pays for these attorneys? The council can't hire their own attorneys. Any attorney would have to be privately paid or donate their time 2. If the attorneys are paid privately they only represent the sole council member that pays them, unless a larger agreement is reached that others waive the basic underlying conflict of interest issue 3. Does the attorney represent the council person as an individual or as a member of the council? Is this an issue of personal liability or the liability of Jackson? If privately hired, the concern would have to be personal liability, not city liability. I could go on and on. The point of these statements were not to delve into the interesting world of legal ethics and representation issues, it is to illustrate the city needs independent legal advice that the city attorney is supposed to provide. Without that since Ms Bond-Profit-Evans-O'R is incapable of doing anything but the Mayor's wishes, the council needs independent representation. Little actions matter, 80K here, 80K there, place someone not competent in this position, fire a capable person there and replace with a croney, run the city life a drunken mob boss where only loyalty matters, nor the law, or reason. It is not surprising that there is almost a 4 million dollar shortfall, a lack of HEADS of departments, a lack of leadership, possibly an entire class of potential firefighters that will not qualify through department error, an understaffed police force, an an apparently incapable police chief. As much as I wish I could wash my hands and say "you wanted it, You got it!" I live here and I am watching my city fall apart before my eyes. At least Nero fiddled. Frank is adding gas to the flames and claiming it is water. And the masses are believing him... AGamma627

Author
AGamm627
Date
2007-05-24T22:21:06-06:00
ID
92735
Comment

well stated, AGamma. i believe that the attorneys to which the council members have referred are pro bono. state law has it that the council cannot hire its own lawyers - as if judicial, legislative & executive branches will never have competing interests. [i hope the legislature fixes that one day. when i stated previously that they need to talk to their state senators & representatives, this is exactly about what i was speaking. governing the largest & capital city in Mississippi, they need to lobby their representatives for a change in the statutes that would allow independent legal representation. a city council in a mayor-council form of municipal government really should have their own lawyer(s).] and it is about personal liability for the coucil members. each one is potentially liable for 3x of an amount erroneously authorized. they should be concerned!

Author
cityofjacksonms
Date
2007-05-24T23:09:04-06:00
ID
92736
Comment

Allen stressed that the lawyers who have offered the council majority advise are: a) serving pro bono, b) offering only "personal" advice, and c) offering that advice to Allen alone. Allen then shares that advice with other council members. I believe he stressed these points to address the legal concerns you all mentioned above.

Author
Brian Johnson
Date
2007-05-25T08:10:31-06:00
ID
92737
Comment

Can anyone say "N E P O T I S M?" How can this City ask for seperation of powers when frank and his "sister-in-law" are calling these kinds of shots? Carolyn Redd had a few comments last night on 16. She came across as a blooming idiot. frank is going over a cliff and they are behind him, 100%. Pushing - faster, faster: All in the name of MONEY! This stuff is just too sick and I can't believe that these people are serious. How far down the tube do they plan to take this City and how far are the citizens of Jackson willing to go???

Author
justjess
Date
2007-05-25T08:41:14-06:00
ID
92738
Comment

An investigation needs to be launched into the handling or mishandling of city funds/budget issues. What does it take to get the state auditor's attention in this matter? The sensible council members, Crisler, Allen, Mclemore, and Simon are fighiting a losing battle. I feel sorry for them, because Melton is a lunatic, crazy, INSANE!!! His mental illness is guiding all of his decisions, and this is why they will never accomplish anything for Jackson as long as he is mayor. He needs psychiatric help. Can't they see it. The man needs treatment. He's a train-wreck leading the city off a deep, deep cliff, and the only thing we can do is sit back and watch it happen. So Sad. So Sad.

Author
blu_n_a_redstate
Date
2007-05-25T11:46:19-06:00
ID
92739
Comment

I think WAPT said Phil Bryant's office can investigate if someone files a formal complaint. Yet, no complaints are on file, so his office isn't involved right now. I don't know if that is any ol' citizen (cause Kim Wade will do it!) or if it has to be a Council member. If so, get on it Council!

Author
pikersam
Date
2007-05-25T13:37:30-06:00
ID
92740
Comment

Pink, so the auditor's can't make a move unless someone acts first. By that time, Jackson will be bankrupt and smoldering in ashes. Maybe the sensible council members, Crisler, Allen, Simon, and McLemore will act on this before it's too late. I believe that they genuinely care about this city.

Author
blu_n_a_redstate
Date
2007-05-25T14:20:34-06:00
ID
92741
Comment

Sorry, I meant Pike. So the auditor's can't make a move unless someone acts first. By that time, Jackson will be bankrupt and smoldering in ashes. Maybe the sensible council members, Crisler, Allen, Simon, and McLemore will act on this before it's too late. I believe that they genuinely care about this city.

Author
blu_n_a_redstate
Date
2007-05-25T14:21:42-06:00
ID
92742
Comment

Brian, and others.. the third paragraph is the one that is important. The next is legalese only relevant to legal arguments, and the one after gets near my point. Call me rambling.. I can take it Even with "pro bono" advice, large ethical and liability issues arise for the attorneys. Unless it is done at a non for profit setting, legal clinic, or over the phone program that benefits a non profit, these attorneys must still be concerned for liability. Again I do not bring this up to point out the finer areas of legal ethics and the quagmire that can erupt. Rather, the council needs independent council as does the mayor. The city of Jackson attorneys should represent the entities they represent, such as fire, police etc, as well as be prosecutors for misdemenors and do contract law. Granted, observing the city attorneys.... WOW what a joke. One admitted to me her job was a joke and she didn't care, just a way to get a check, and she didn't even have to put any effort into it. She barely had to show up, since it didn't matter, she always was going to lose. Even if not, the cases were not worth any real effort, because she got paid win or lose. This was one of OUR city prosecutors and a HIGH UP ONE... AGamma627

Author
AGamm627
Date
2007-05-27T01:03:14-06:00
ID
92743
Comment

AGamma, you're correct with 90% of what you stated above. the exception i see is that the city's lower-runged attorneys are charged with representing the city's interests as a whole, and not the simpler interests of city departments. it's my understanding that they are assigned specific departments, boards, commissions, etc., so that each area will have a "go-to" person, but they are still to look out for the city as a whole. if i'm incorrect, please let me know. and i wouldn't consider ALL of the city's attorneys as jokes. i have interacted with several past & present ones. they're not all bad, just working in a crazy environment.... it's interesting that the prosecutor you mentioned stated such. from looking at the city's website, there aren't too many ladies that would be considered as a "high up one." i believe you just "outed" the City Prosecutor! i hope she still has a job on tuesday. :-)

Author
cityofjacksonms
Date
2007-05-27T21:58:05-06:00

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